On Sunday, The New York Times reported on “extremely troubling” claims by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials detained “dozens” of Iranian-Americans attempting to return to the country through a Washington State-Canadian border crossing. But CBP says that the premise of the “troubling” claims about their alleged handling of Iranian-Americans is “false.”
According to CAIR, over 60 Iranian-American travelers attempting to return to the United States from Canada over the weekend were detained for several hours for additional questioning, and some allegedly were even turned away by officials, at least initially.
The claim comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran after President Trump ordered a strategic airstrike last week targeting Iran’s top military leader, General Qassem Soleimani, who headed up the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
“More than 60 of the travelers, many returning from work trips or vacations, were trying to come home to the United States on Saturday when agents at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Wash., held them for additional questioning about their political views and allegiances, according to advocacy groups and accounts from travelers,” the Times reported Sunday. “Most of the travelers were released after the extra scrutiny, according to administration officials, although advocates said some were denied entry into the United States.”
CAIR Washington Executive Director Masih Fouladi told the Times that some of those detained were held for questioning for as many as 10 hours, while others were initially denied entry and told to come back at another time.
“Later on Saturday night, when others who had just attended a concert in Canada by an Iranian pop star were trying to cross back into the United States, they were denied entry and told to come back later, Mr. Fouladi said,” the Times reports.
According to Fouladi, one CBP officer allegedly told a family member when asked why they were being detained, “This is a bad time to be an Iranian.”
“These reports are extremely troubling and potentially constitute illegal detentions of United States citizens,” said Fouladi.
But CBP says the claims are not accurate, and any cause for delay had more to do with a high number of travelers and low staffing over the holidays than heightened security concerns.
“Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false,” CBP said in a tweet posted Sunday afternoon. “Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.”
Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false. Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.
— CBP (@CBP) January 5, 2020
The real issue at the Blaine port, CBP told the Times, was that processing times were “increased by four hours because of the high number of people entering and staffing shortages from the holiday season.”
The Times, however, suggests that a recent Department of Homeland Security advisory change in response to the increased threat from Iran may have prompted more thorough scrutiny of those with Iranian heritage. “While border officers are not permitted to refer someone for what is known as a ‘secondary screening’ of questioning based solely on national origin, it is one of multiple factors they are directed to consider, in addition to travel documents, travel history or suspicious behavior when choosing whom to refer for additional scrutiny,” the Times reports, noting that this sort of additional scrutiny takes place “daily.”
Given the current circumstances, a former CBP official told the Times, it is likely that those with Iranian heritage “would be sent to secondary as a result of the increased tension with that country.”
On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security updated its National Terrorism Advisory System in response to the increased threat of retaliation by pro-Iran entities for the killing of Iran’s top military leader. Below is the full text of the advisory:
- The United States designated Iran a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” in 1984 and since then, Iran has actively engaged in or directed an array of violent and deadly acts against the United States and its citizens globally. The United States designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a Foreign Terrorist Organization on April 15, 2019 for its direct involvement in terrorist plotting.
- On January 2, 2020, the United States carried out a lethal strike in Iraq killing Iranian IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani while Soleimani was in Iraq.
- Iranian leadership and several affiliated violent extremist organizations publicly stated they intend to retaliate against the United States.
- At this time we have no information indicating a specific, credible threat to the Homeland. Iran and its partners, such as Hizballah, have demonstrated the intent and capability to conduct operations in the United States.
- Previous homeland-based plots have included, among other things, scouting and planning against infrastructure targets and cyber enabled attacks against a range of U.S.- based targets.
- Iran maintains a robust cyber program and can execute cyber attacks against the United States. Iran is capable, at a minimum, of carrying out attacks with temporary disruptive effects against critical infrastructure in the United States.
- Iran likely views terrorist activities as an option to deter or retaliate against its perceived adversaries. In many instances, Iran has targeted United States interests through its partners such as Hizballah.
- Homegrown Violent Extremists could capitalize on the heightened tensions to launch individual attacks.
- An attack in the homeland may come with little or no warning.
- The Department of Homeland Security is working closely with our federal, state, local, and private sector partners to detect and defend against threats to the Homeland, and will enhance security measures as necessary.